By Clare Reynders
Middle-school participants in our MEDIAGIRLS program tell us regularly they are addicted to YouTube, spending endless hours a day consuming favorite shows, music videos, DIY tips, and more. They are not alone: According to Brandwatch.com, YouTube is now the third most visited website, after Google and Facebook, and 400 hours of video are uploaded every minute! Many participants fantasize about being famous “YouTubers” with millions of fans, making billions of dollars. Note: 96.5% of all of those trying to become YouTubers won’t make enough money off of advertising to crack the U.S. poverty line; but that’s another story. What we wanted to know is whether YouTube is more positive or negative for girls.
YouTube videos are accessible, varied, and shorter than an episode of a TV show, so girls say they’re more fun and easy to watch than TV. What also makes it so appealing is variety; you can basically find a video for anything you’re looking for because there are no TV executives beholden to advertisers. Instead producers of any age can upload their ideas right onto YouTube, and we all get to choose for ourselves what is worthy.
For Claire, an 8th grader on the MEDIAGIRLS Youth Advisory Board, “I love inspiring videos like those of Nathan Zed, because his videos always feel grounded and meaningful. The Game Theorists are a fun channel because they analyze games you love with science, and you get to learn all sorts of interesting things. I also am a big fan of Domics. He is a huge inspiration for me, his videos are never mean-spirited and they make me smile.”
We love how many young YouTubers are using the platform to make the world a better place. For example, we’re seeing gutsy teens speak up for LGBQT+ rights; provide pro-tips for girls on how to survive the transitions to middle-school and high school; share tips on how to start a business, create a pastry, repair a broken phone, take professional-looking photos, and become a ukulele player, just to name a few.
Risa, another 8th grade Youth Advisory Board member, used YouTube to learn hair braiding: “A few years ago, my summer camp counselor was amazing at hair braiding, and all the girls asked her to do their hair. I wondered what the hype was about, and asked her to do my hair. I fell in love with the braid she made, and spent hours every day on YouTube learning to master it and make other intricate braids. I started with simple French braids and ended up learning complicated ones like the ‘Inverted Dutch fishtail fauxhawk.’ I have done a lot of my friends’ hair since, and was recently asked to create braids for five high-school girls going to their prom, and I’ll make $200!”
Says Michelle Cove, founder and Executive Director of MEDIAGIRLS, I so appreciate seeing teen girls using the platform to help other girls, lift their spirits, and be authentic. I’ve seen so many girls on YouTube performing in poetry slams, competing in fierce dancing competitions, creating PSAs, teaching tutorials, and more. There are so many incredible role models.”
The darker side of YouTube for girls
But this platform without gatekeepers is a double-edged sword. If everyone can put out videos, who’s keeping an eye on what is inappropriate and harmful for girls? For every inspiring creator, there is an overabundance of people who abuse the platform.
For instance, says Claire, “Recently, a hugely popular YouTuber, Logan Paul, went into a forest famous for suicide, and showed a dead body to his millions of fans. Not only could this be problematic for people who may have had suicidal thoughts, but the majority of his fans are kids that are being influenced by his behavior. The worst part is that he barely made a real apology, and just plugged his channel in the video. He also makes music videos that objectify women in a really gross way.” Logan has 17 million subscribers (and this is after all the controversy caused many people to unsubscribe), and he often sets a terrible example for young people.
Says Amanda Mozea, Education Outreach Manager of MEDIAGIRLS, “I have become more and more aware that who becomes popular on YouTube is mainly tied to conventional beauty standards. Thumbnails (the preview image) are typically curated selfies – sexy and elegant, pouts on point, eyebrows snatched, contoured to perfection – drawing clicks towards them like magnets. Beauty gurus are almost always white; fashionistas are often uniformly size 00; hair tutorials are for girls with straight hair. Even in the Black, natural-hair community, loose curls on light-skinned, mixed girls dominate YouTube views. Basically, YouTube has a way of making lots of girls – girls of color, “plus-sized” girls, girls with curly and coily hair – feel invisible.”
Michelle Cove adds “We use YouTube to share MEDIAGIRLS playlists (see sidebar below) with music videos compiled by girls that have positive lyrics. I’m struck by how many music videos are empowering on the surface with lyrics about being strong and independent; but the singers are dancing suggestively to get a guy’s attention or seduce the audience by pouting into the camera. It’s a clash of messaging, and confusing for girls.”
So where do we land with YouTube?
Like all forms of media, YouTube is a platform, not good or bad inherently, and depends on how we use it. There’s plenty of garbage out there, and we wish we could shield girls from many of the sexist, derogatory and mean-spirited content. But without question, YouTube can be inspiring, if girls find the right channels to watch. Young girls everywhere should be empowered to share their creativity with the world without focusing too much on fame or the more shallow aspects of YouTube culture. We have YouTube to thank for providing a space for kids to get creative while encouraging others to do so.
- Ask your girl(s) who her favorite YouTube influencers are and why.
- Have her show you one or two of her favorite videos that she thinks are positive for girls. Ask her to explain why, and what kind of content she’d put out there for girls if she could.
- Show her a video or two that you find empowering (see below for hints) and ask her to weigh in.
<<Favorite Female YouTubers to Check Out with Your Girls>>
MEDIAGIRLS Girl-Power Playlists – Our Youth Advisory Board creates a compilation of favorite songs of the year with inspiring and positive lyrics for girls. We definitely recommend asking girls why all the singers in these videos are conventionally beautiful and “sexy,” and why it matters in music.
Dodie Clark – a musician who writes great songs on her ukulele, collaborates with her talented friends, and speaks candidly about mental health and sexuality!
Lily Singh – Her hilarious sketches, funny celebrity collabs, and honest, candid persona make Lily one of the best YouTubers working right now.
Vi Hart – Makes math videos where she discusses interesting concepts through her incredible doodles! Her geometric doodles have filled many a page in my math notebooks.
Ingrid Nilsen – There seems to be thousands of “beauty guru” YouTubers out there, and Ingrid is unique for how positive and supportive she is.